Everything You Need to Know to House a Juvenile Tortoise


Yes, they really do come this small!

If you’re thinking of keeping a tortoise as a pet there are a whole range of species on offer to you. None of them are easy to keep in terms of maintaining a suitable and consistent environment, however for a number of reasons my personal preference is for Hermanns tortoises, not least because they are slightly easier to manage than other species.

If you’re short on space a juvenile Hermann’s is the ideal pet because they are one the smaller species available. For the first few years of their lives juveniles must be kept indoors and a proper enclosure away from potential dangers such as other pets. Being as small as they are (less than 10cm or 4″ in length) juvenile Hermann’s require less space to live a healthy and fulfilled existence, making them ideal for you if (as in my case) your home isn’t particularly big.

Whether you choose a Hermann’s or not, the rest of this guide will still prove useful to you as the requirements for most juveniles are largely the same.

Space Required to House a Juvenile Hermanns

Hermann’s tortoises are best suited to being kept in a terrarium or tortoise table of about a metre long by half a metre deep, by half a metre tall. The top should be as open as possible to allow a free flow of air throughout the day, essentially simulating their natural warm outdoor habitat. However, you should keep a light wire mesh covering on top of the enclosure at all times particularly if dogs and cats are present in your home. The air will still flow freely and your tortoise will stay safe.

Which Vivarium/Tortoise Table Should I Buy?

As you might expect there are many tortoise tables and vivariums available on the market. These range in price from between £40 to £200 ($50 – $250) or more. Personally I’m not too keen on many of the options available, as they’re either too enclosed and don’t offer enough free flow of air for my liking, or they have an open top with no protective mesh. The latter is fine as long as there isn’t any risk of pets or children getting their hands/claws on the tortoise, or objects being thrown into the enclosure.

In my case I have two small sons who don’t necessarily know not to throw things around the room that might land on their pet, so I use a tortoise table with a mesh cover. There are numerous companies that will effectively create a bespoke table to your own specifications, which is probably the best option, but just think carefully about what features you need to best fit your circumstances before you decide what to go for.

The other option of course is to make your own, and there are a number of plans and instructions freely available online if you’re feeling up to the challenge, and of course you’ll save money if you source your materials ‘creatively’.

Correct Humidity and Temperature for a Juvenile Hermanns

All tortoises require a certain degree of humidity to ensure they are properly hydrated, to ensure the health of their eyes is good, and crucially that their shell develops correctly.

The good news is that compared to some other breeds Hermanns and other tortoises that hail from arid environments are slightly less demanding in this respect. Species such as red footed and yellow footed tortoises are native to rainforest regions of the world, and as such require a high level of humidity throughout the day, somewhere in the region of 70%-80%. This can usually only be achieved with a device that produces humidity on demand around the clock. Furthermore it requires a more expensive enclosure that isn’t adversely affected by the constant moisture in the air.

Hermann’s on the other hand are a Mediterranean species, native to dry climates, and can be kept adequately hydrated with less effort. Typically Hermanns require only 30%-50% humidity, any more than this could have a negative affect, resulting in bacterial or fungal infections, or even ‘shell rot’ in the worst cases.

Above all Hermann’s require a supply of food with a high-water content, and water on demand, including a shallow water container that they can bathe in without their head being submerged – obviously!

I also keep a water spray next to my tortoise table at all times to develop the habit of giving the air inside the table a quick spray a few times a day, just to get some moisture in the air, some of which will land on the tortoise. I also make sure to give the salad leaves a good spray to ensure the tortoise takes on extra water if he’s feeling too lazy to drink that day.

Correct Lighting For Juvenile Tortoises

Having the correct lighting set up is absolutely vital to ensuring the health of any tortoise, and  Hermanns tortoises are no exception. All tortoises hail from exotic parts of the world where both sunlight and air temperature exceed the levels found here in the UK (generally speaking!) so it’s important to be able to simulate that as accurately as possible.

Why do Tortoises Require UV (Ultraviolet) Lighting?

Just as we humans require a certain amount of sunlight in order to produce vitamin D, which is essential for our health, the same is true for tortoises. Tortoises absorb UV light in order to synthesize vitamin D3. This is vital for metabolising calcium, as well as various other minerals needed for proper growth of the tortoise’s bones and shell in particular. Without it your tortoise could develop a whole host of ailments including pyramiding, which could ultimately lead to a premature death.

To complicate matters just a little bit, there are several different forms of UV light, some of which are more beneficial to tortoises than others. The varieties required for tortoises are UVA and UVB.

For Hermann’s tortoises you should choose a lamp that emits more UVB than UVA. This is because the dry, desert like environment that Hermann’s are native to receive particularly high doses of UVB radiation from the sun, which is what they’ve adapted to absorb most effectively.

That’s not to say UVA isn’t important, but when you are shopping for a lamp, be mindful that the emphasis should be on the UVB output of the bulb. Opt for a high intensity UVB, moderate intensity UVA bulb, and you won’t go far wrong.

Other Considerations When Installing Your UV Lamp

Ultraviolet light doesn’t pass though glass particularly well. This is great for you in your car during a long journey on a sunny day, but not so good for your tortoise if the lamp is placed outside of the glass of their enclosure.

Therefore, it’s best to make sure the UV lamp is placed directly over the tortoise, free of any obstruction between them, and you should also make sure the lamp isn’t positioned too high above them – somewhere between 30cm and 35cm is optimal.

Finally, your tortoise UV bulb will likely be on for between 10 and 12 hours a day. This is a long time for any light bulb to be switched on continuously, so you will find the bulb will fail perhaps more frequently than you might like. Unfortunately there isn’t really any way to get around this, so you should factor in the cost of an annual bulb replacement to the cost of owning your tortoise.

Heat Bulb

Ultraviolet light simulates the light of the sun, but Hermann’s tortoises also require the heat of the sun in order to be healthy. Tortoises like all reptiles are cold blooded animals and require external heat in order to metabolise their food properly.

Tortoises require basking temperatures of between 26 and 32 degrees Celsius, although this only needs to be localised to a certain area of your tortoise enclosure so that the tortoise is free to bask when it wants to.

Incandescent or Halogen Light Bulbs

The easiest way of creating the required level of heat is to use an in incandescent light bulb. These are basically the traditional light bulbs we used to use in lamps throughout the home before the advent of energy saving and LED light bulbs. These are less commonly available now, but you can still buy varieties that are ‘packaged’ as reptile bulbs, even though they aren’t really anything special as far as their functionality goes.

In terms of power (Wattage), more is generally better. I use a 60 Watt bulb in my tortoise table, positioned about 20cm above the tortoise which seems to work well. As a rule, the more powerful it is the further you can position the bulb from your tortoise.

Just like the UV bulb, the heat bulb will be on most of the day every day, which means it will blow and stop working on a fairly regular basis. In my experience heat bulbs fail even more regularly than UV bulbs, perhaps 2 or 3 times a year. So you might be looking at 10 or 15 quid (15 to 20 bucks) to cover this every year.

Other Heating Options

Besides light bulbs there are a number of non-light emitting heat sources that you could try, whilst I don’t have any experience of these, I might yet give them a go.

Ceramic Heating Elements

These screw into the same Edison screw type light fittings as most incandescent light bulbs, so using one could in theory be an easy replacement for a light bulb. However one thing to bear in mind is that the body of such elements get extremely hot, and I’ve read they can even cause the plastic of the light fitting to melt. If so a ceramic light fitting would need to be used instead of a plastic one. Either way make sure you keep a close eye on yours when you first fit it, if you choose to go down this route.

Heat Pads

These sit on the base of the tortoise table/vivarium and radiate a moderate amount of heat, but probably shouldn’t be relied upon to give off enough heat on their own. Instead they should be used to supplement the heat given off by a heat bulb/ceramic element, particularly if your enclosure is particularly large. They are also useful for providing additional heat at night time if you have a need for it.

Food and Water

Tortoise’s are natural foragers, so replicating the kind of diet they have in the wild is the best option to avoiding any concerns about what you feed them.

For the most part I stick with leafy green salad leaves, such as rocket or spinach, but it’s also a great idea to pick dandelion leaves from your garden and offer these as well. This type of vegetation should form at least 80% of the diet of your tortoise as it contains practically all the nutritional value a tortoise requires.  

To make things a little more interesting from time to time you can feed your tortoise other vegetables such as cauliflower, peppers, or even less often fruits such as apples or grapes. I would however limit this to a single serving per week alongside the greenery.

Incidentally the only real exception to the strictly vegetarian diet among tortoise species is the Red Footed tortoise. This omnivorous species requires slightly more protein than most tortoises and will quite happily devour earth worms, dead mice and chicks on occasion.

Water

Clean water should be provided for your tortoise every day for both drinking and bathing purposes. Therefore it needs to be stored in a shallow accessible container, and replaced every day because it will get dirty.

You should bathe your tortoise in tepid water once a week for 10 to 15 minutes to properly flush out their system and encourage them to take on water. Don’t be alarmed if your tortoise goes to toilet in the water, that’s a perfectly normal part of said flushing process.

Cuttlefish Bone (Cuttlebone)

Calcium is a vital component in the tortoise diet, just as we need it for healthy teeth and bones, tortoises need it for the health of their bones and shell.

A cuttlefish bone is an effective and readily available source of calcium which your tortoise can nibble on as and when they want to.

Juveniles have a lesser developed jaw and may struggle to make it through the hard outer layer of a cuttlebone, so it’s worth removing the hard outer layer for a hatchling that’s under a year old.

Calcium Supplement

Whilst a cuttlebone provides a perfectly healthy and natural source of calcium it’s useful to also provide a calcium supplement in a powdered form as this is easier for the tortoise to ingest. Pure calcium carbonate is the best form possible, as it isn’t considered possible for a tortoise to really ingest too much calcium in this form.

Scenery and Furniture

Besides the essential amenities, it’s important to make your tortoise enclosure a pleasant environment for your tortoise to be. Make it interesting with a few pieces of wood or other items available from pet shops, this encourages the tortoise to explore and stay active.

It’s also important to have a covered sheltered area or ‘hide’ for the tortoise to retreat to when it chooses to ‘get out of the sun’ for any reason throughout the day, or to sleep at night.

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